Who is Damian Hinds? That was the question many teachers were asking themselves on 8 January when the MP for East Hampshire replaced Justine Greening as secretary of state for education.
And after eight months in office, it is a question many are still asking, for although he has publicly set out his priorities for schools, such as reducing teacher workload, he has proved frustratingly elusive when MPs and journalists have tried to get beyond the policy headlines.
On the afternoon of GCSE results day, Hinds sat down with Tes for his first major interview for the new school year.
Since gaining his first cabinet position – “there is no other job that I would rather have done” – it has become clear that he is a fluent and engaging speaker, as might be expected from a past president of the Oxford Union debating society.
For all her popularity in the sector and command of detail, this was an area where some questioned his predecessor’s performance. In his first major speech, to the Education World Forum two weeks after replacing Greening, Hinds paced the stage while speaking without notes.
And while former accountant Greening sat at her desk armed with sheaves of heavily annotated notes for last year’s back-to-school interview with Tes, Hinds, who spent 18 years in the brewing and hotel industries, relaxes in a comfortable armchair, without a sheet of paper in sight.
But if Hinds’ engaging style is part of his politician’s persona, so too is the frequency with which he avoids giving direct answers to direct questions, as members of the Commons Education Select Committee discovered to their frustration during his first appearance before them in March.
Indeed, he has perfected the modern politician’s trick of placing the conjunction “so” before his response to help disguise the fact it only tangentially addresses the question.
Are you worried the new Ofsted inspection framework will increase teacher workload?
“So, as you know, there is a periodic process which Ofsted will go through to look at its framework …”
When will the financial crisis for schools be over?
“So, we compare the money that is spent on schools in this country with what is spent on schools in other countries …”
Is academic evidence that grammar schools are bad for social mobility wrong?
A pause. “So …” Another pause. “Grammar schools play a part, as it happens a relatively small part, in our overall school system …”
Hinds is unapologetic about one of his most controversial decisions yet, announced after most schools had gone on summer holiday, to go against the recommendations of the statutory pay review body and set a real-terms pay cut for senior teachers and school leaders. Teachers on the main pay scale will get a 3.5 per cent rise, but those on the upper ranges will get 2 per cent and leaders just 1.5 per cent.
Declining to accept the School Teachers’ Review Body’s report in full was a highly unusual move that has left many members of the NEU teaching union’s executive pushing for strike action.
So, what is Hinds’ message to those facing another real-terms pay cut?
“Look, we all want teachers and leaders in schools to be well rewarded for what they do,” he says. “It is a unique role in society and whenever any of us think about our own education, it’s always about the power of people that makes the difference.” Although the public sector pay cap had been lifted, “we still have had very significant fiscal constraints”.
“We determined – I determined – that we should focus on those teachers towards the lower end of the overall pay distribution,” Hinds concludes.
What about the biggest question confronting schools up and down the country: funding?
At first, Hinds uses context to try to downplay the problem, saying how we “don’t spend a great deal less” than other countries on education, and how we “spend considerably more per pupil” than 20 years ago.
Only when challenged that this will sound complacent to heads making teachers redundant and cutting courses does he acknowledge “funding is tight”, something he attributes to higher expectations of schools. The strategy he outlines to address it is better use of existing resources, through the new School Resource Management Strategy that the Department for Education is launching today.
Can he give any indication of when schools will no longer face these funding pressures? His non-answer suggests he cannot: “I think schools will always be ambitious. They will always want to do more for those children.”
Hinds says that when Theresa May appointed him, she gave him the brief “to have social mobility absolutely at the heart of what we do”. What about grammar schools, then? Multiple studies have found that, far from aiding social mobility, grammars actual damage this in their localities. Does Hinds, who like May is a product of the grammar system and earlier this year announced details of a £200 million fund for existing selective schools to expand, believe the academics are wrong?
He begins by minimising the importance of grammar schools in the school landscape.
“Grammar schools play a part, a relatively small part, in our overall school system – 163, I think, out of the total number of secondary schools. The vast majority of our secondaries are comprehensive intake, and so any approach to social mobility for the whole country will be focusing primarily on the great majority, which is about comprehensive intake,” he says.
“I think grammar schools can also play a part.”
When pressed on the research that says otherwise, he responds: “No, there are different pieces of evidence depending on how you adjust for different factors and so on.”
The DfE was later unable to find out which reports he was referring to, but it highlights a study by the University of Bristol showing that children eligible for free school meals enjoyed a larger educational gain from attending a grammar school than other children, and a ResPublica report that controversially suggested that a selective school in Knowsley could help to turn around education in the borough.
In any case, Hinds stresses that to secure funds to expand, a grammar school will have to show how it will increase its inclusivity.
Considering his appointment by Theresa May, it is intriguing that some of Hinds’ office decorations hark back to her predecessor. One of the bottles of wine on his window sill bears a caricature of David Cameron, while a photo from 2015 signed by the team of Conservative and Lib Dem coalition whips, which Hinds was a member of under then-chief whip Michael Gove, sits prominently on a sideboard.
And it was this former education secretary who, within days of Hinds’ appointment to the DfE, publicly picked him out as a potential future prime minister, praising him and defence secretary Gavin Williamson as “incredibly impressive young politicians”.
So what is the secret to Hinds’ rise to the top? Is it his low key, low risk approach?
As Tes left his office, Hinds began preparations for an appearance on the BBC’s The One Show. Later, one viewer, a SEN adviser from South Gloucestershire, tweeted: “So far he has said a lot of words, but he hasn’t answered any questions!” The quest to pin down Damian Hinds goes on.